Reflections by Tim Wilbur

Tim Wilbur, Director for school consultancy at Gabbitas, reflects on the Independent Schools Council’s 2018 Annual Report in School Report Magazine.

This eagerly anticipated annual snapshot of the state of independent schooling never fails to disappoint! However, for most of us, it offers the best benchmarking material available. As a year on year reflection on the sector, it has built an enviable reputation for detail and accuracy.

The 2018 report has a very upbeat message on the state of the industry. This is largely because the sector continues to produce the best educational outcomes for its pupils. A simple scan of the data on examination results both at GCSE/A Level and the IB, leaves little room for doubting the strength and depth of teaching and learning being delivered to produce these results. These results are not only outstanding in a national context but also in a global one. Indeed, if further proof were needed, this sector alone delivers the best results in STEM, MFL and all other minority subject areas.

There are now more pupils in the sector than there has ever been. Scholarship and bursary spending is at an all time high. It would be fair to say that the in the much publicised ‘social mobility’ debate, the independent sector has a record second to none in making a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged young people.

Certain trends in the sector continue to have an impact on the balance of pupil numbers in favour of co-education and day numbers. The international market continues to hold reasonably steady with once again the increase of Chinese pupils, balancing out slight falls in other markets. All this remains positive against a background of an increasing number of British curriculum schools overseas.

This is not to say there are not clouds on the horizon and the Report is honest and open about these. The current economic situation and the potential effects of Brexit appear to have placed some uncertainty in the minds of parents. This seems to be reflected towards the junior end of the market. Gabbitas research suggests even where many senior schools are buoyant, Registrars are beginning to feel the pressure in maintaining entrance levels into Nursery, Reception or Year 1. There is also a growing acceptance that fee levels cannot continue to rise as they have done in recent years. With Brexit, we will probably lose pupils because parents are being asked to work off-shore This undoubtedly will have a long-term impact on the sector.

From a Gabbitas perspective we are fielding an increasing number of consultancy requests from schools looking to make use of the ISC and other benchmarking materials. There are schools that are beginning to realise that forward planning or future-proofing their schools is more vital than ever. There are other schools which require radical thinking as they realise they are no longer up to speed and/or have been impacted by local demographic and economic circumstances.

The strength of the sector has always relied on the quality of the young people it produces and this goes far beyond academic excellence. If governance and management within the sector remains vigilant and is prepared to be proactive the 2019 Report will make equally good reading. Perhaps, someone should make sure there is a copy on the Prime Minister’s desk.